Fact-checking my inbox

Over the holidays, my cousin sent me a chain email that has been floating around the web for a while. Called “Spiral America,” it purports to show that our country has more people on the dole than those who work, that our private enterprise health system provides better care than countries where they have a national program, and that it is all the fault of the Obama administration because hardly anyone running things has any business experience.

Why my cousin sends me these things I really do not understand. He knows I think differently from him, and I don’t disturb him by sending him my perspectives. This time I couldn’t stop myself. I had to do some fact checking, which is fairly easy these days using the Internet. So in case you have relatives or friends with nothing better to do than send you these types of chain letters, here is what I found out.

Let’s begin with welfare. The unsigned attack piece claims that in a dozen states, including California, there are more people living off government programs than people who work for a living. This seems impossible on the face of it – and it is. There are about 14 million employees in both the private and public sectors in California. On the other hand, 1.4 million people receive cash grants (Temporary Aid to Needy Families or TANF), and about 4.1 million get food support (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) and another 7.4 million have state-supported health care (MediCal). The distortion occurs by adding up these numbers and comparing the total with the number of working employees. They aren’t comparable figures.

The welfare attack also claims that people living on the dole make more per hour than the average working person. It claims that welfare pays people about $30 an hour while the average job pays just $20! Somehow, if a person lives on some combination of government programs, they make $168/day versus working people earning $137/day. Fact checking says no way. In 2012, the average TANF benefit was $375 per month for a family of three. The average SNAP benefit in 2013 was about $125 a month per person, and the program has since suffered budget cuts.

The anti-welfare argument also claims that all the states where this is true are run by Democrats – which, of course, is patently untrue since the list includes places like Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Kentucky, all dominated by Republicans.

This piece then takes up health care by comparing the American system – pre-Obama – with the national medical systems of England and Canada. It says that cancer survival rate five years after diagnosis is 65 percent in the U.S., 46 percent in the U.K. and 42 percent in our northern neighbor. It shows similar disparities in diabetes treatment, as well as access to senior hip replacement, medical specialists and MRI scanners. Well, the U.S. does have a lot of MRI scanners – a situation some see as further inflating the high cost of care in the American system.

As for the survival rates, the critics of these numbers argue that such rates vary by type of cancer, so comparisons are difficult to make. Instead, people who study health care systems use various categories to compare overall effectiveness. These include: quality, access, efficiency, equity, overall health and cost. In these types of comparisons, the U.S. does better in some categories and worse in others. Overall our ranking is poor. A study by the Commonwealth Fund of the healthcare systems of 11 developed nations ranked us dead last. Ditto for a comparison of 17 developed nations by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. Notably, all of the countries above us possess a national health care system.

Finally, the hit piece blames all this on President Obama for not appointing enough business-types to his cabinet. The attack says only eight percent of the president’s cabinet have had business experience in the private-sector – the lowest since John F. Kennedy’s cabinet, at 30 percent. But the person who compiled this list missed or minimized a number of cabinet members with business experience and excluded everyone who had been a lawyer. If we include the people the analysis missed and the attorneys, Obama’s cabinet appointees with private sector experience runs to 78 percent. If that’s a key value, he certainly has not ignored it.

In a time as polarized as ours and with the web offering easy dissemination, we can expect such distortions as commonplace. So when I read these slanted screeds, I remember the words attributed to my favorite American humorist, Mark Twain. For most of a century he has been credited with saying, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can sure figure.” I try to always apply that bit of wisdom, and when I do it pays off every time.

Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city’s mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was its second chair, and was a founder of Santa Monica’s renter’s rights campaign.

Reprinted with permission from the author and Capital and Main. The original is here.


Rev. Jim Conn
Rev. Jim Conn

Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city's mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was a founder of Santa Monica's renter's rights campaign. Rev. Conn is a regular contributor to Capital & Main.